Training Days: Can Healthy Green Lead Texans To Playoffs?
Saturday, August 9, 2008

HOUSTON -- Never mind that the practice field resembles the inside of a blast furnace, courtesy of the Texas sun. For that matter, never mind that it's only practice and that the Houston Texans won't play a game that counts for another month.

Ahman Green is running hard. Exceptionally hard. Harder than any of his Texans coaches or teammates have seen since he arrived here last year.

"It almost seems like he wants to practice more than the coaches are even letting him," offensive tackle Eric Winston said.

Keep in mind that, at 31 years old and entering his 11th NFL season, Green long ago developed a hatred for training-camp drudgery. It's not that he finds an ounce of fun in running through drills, especially in the intense heat that grips this area this time of year. And keep in mind that the Texans' coaches don't want him overdoing it, especially after a miserable 2007 campaign that was cut short because of a deep knee bruise he suffered in the first game of the regular season.

However, it is because of that abbreviated first year in Houston, because he never could shake the ill effects of his injury no matter how hard he tried, because he fell so far short of lofty expectations created by $6.5 million in guaranteed money for signing with the Texans as a free agent, that Green is so determined to show that what happened in གྷ was a fluke.

The "real" Ahman Green, the one who went to four Pro Bowls with the Green Bay Packers, plans to tear it up in 2008.

He'd better, because the Texans' hopes of making a first-ever playoff appearance this season depend on it.

"This team, to be successful, needs him to play well," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think it's hurt our team that we haven't been able to run the ball well. It's kept our defense on the field way too long. And that's how you win this league -- play good defense and run the ball."

Without trying to heap too much of a load on one player, but also seeking a return on a hefty investment, the Texans are looking for another one of those 1,000-yard seasons that Green routinely had with the Packers. His work in practice provides optimism that that will be the case.

"So far, so good," Kubiak said. "He's had an excellent offseason, he's healthy. He tried to play with that banged knee last year, and we just could never get him back to himself. But he's worked hard. I see a hungry guy. I know he's got a lot of pride. He was disappointed last year."

Bitterly disappointed. Although Green didn't realize it at the time, his first season as a Texan was about to unravel after he took a hit from a helmet to the outside of his left knee in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"When it happened, I just kind of shrugged it off, (figuring) it was one of those things I would probably feel on Tuesday," Green recalled. "I didn't really make a big deal of it. I finished the game strong, (with) me and Ron (Dayne) picking up a couple of first downs and pretty much running the clock out (on a 20-3 victory).

"Then, the next day and the weeks to follow, it was just basically day-to-day. Some days it felt great, others days it felt worse than others. It would be normal looking and then it would be the size of a grapefruit. I just didn't understand it. I just knew it was a really bad bruise ... and as the season went on and the more running I tried to do on it, it just got worse."

Green wound up playing in only six games (with five starts), gaining just 260 yards and two touchdowns, before the Texans placed him on their injured-reserve list. Many skeptics didn't buy the fact that a bruise, as opposed to an injury requiring surgical repair, could cause a player to miss 10 games. They labeled Green an expensive bust.

Green's teammates know better.

"We're expecting big things out of him," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "He worked tremendously hard this offseason to get that (knee) healthy, and he's had a great training camp, really running hard. He's a guy with a lot of pride in what he does. He just is always in there, rehabbing and working out and trying to keep his body strong. He takes incredibly great pride in not only his running, but also his pass protection and his blocking. He loves doing that stuff."

With Alex Gibbs as the new assistant head coach/offense, the Texans are implementing a full zone-blocking scheme for their running game, as opposed to the half man-to-man/power and half zone approach they took under former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. Gibbs' zone-blocking format did wonders for many backs when he utilized it while guiding the offensive line of the Denver Broncos.

Green's exceptional patience, as well as the extra work he has put in during the offseason and in camp to develop greater cohesion with his offensive linemen, figures to give him a good chance to thrive.

"Ahman and (the rest of the Texans' running backs) are making one cut and they're getting those tough yards inside," Schaub said. "Those big ones will break. After we pound a two-, three-, four-yarder, then we'll get that 30-yarder."

If his training-camp practices are any indication, Green, who expects to see a quarter of action in the Texans' preseason-opener Saturday night against Denver, should be able to rip off his share of long runs. He shows no hesitation whatsoever in his movement, fully trusting his left knee to hold up. Green also doesn't show any fear that another hit could cause another setback.

"I don't really think about it," he said. "I got past that during minicamps and OTAs. That was my concern: How was I going feel when I run to my left? How was I going to feel when I run to my right? How was I going to feel when I have to hit a linebacker in the middle and drive for yards? I got most of those questions answered then and the first week of full-contact stuff in training camp."

"It's hard to believe that that guy is going on his 11th year," Winston said. "You take a look at him and he's so put together. He takes care of his body."

If Green's body takes better care of him this season than it did last year, the Texans just might be able to finally make that first playoff appearance.

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